National Identities and Their Material Settings

There is no doubt that devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales has begun to make people think about England as a political entity, one that is distinct from Britain. But to focus solely on constitutional matters misses some important questions. We argue that people connect to the nation, in large part, as a consequence of their material and practical experiences—of employment and the way expectations relating to health care, housing and neighbourhood are met. Moreover, many of these experiences are class experiences. These social and economic contexts also need to be considered if we are to fully grasp how people orientate themselves to nation. Our understanding of national identity across Britain has benefited enormously from access to an excellent body of survey research. Through large samples and fixed questions, this work provides a wealth of evidence for broad patterns of change over time in the strength of national identity, for example with regard to shifts from British to English identifications. But survey research also has the tendency to omit the material context in which people talk about their country or sense of national attachment. We find that strong national identities and resentments are commonly situated within the broader accounts people give of their material lives. It is through people’s views on being English, British or otherwise, that we locate deeper sources of resentment—of a world in which they are ‘left behind’ or of a country that has changed for the worse (Ford and Goodwin 2014b). This has two immediate implications for an analysis of discontented national identities. The first concerns how discontentment is to be traced empirically: in our view, this is not solely through perceptions of changing constitutional settlements or even the explicit sense of national identity but through broader popular sentiments which can include references to everyday life and neighbourhoods and to social and economic changes to nation and country. Hence our focus is not only on asking direct questions about national identity but, in a more far-reaching respect, with national identity as a lens into the state of the nation. The second aspect is that changes to social classes, along with material shifts in the political economy, have contributed to the circumstances in which questions of nationhood and national identity are problematised and, thus, are important considerations for explaining the growing assertion of substate identities. Nationhood is not simply a question of psychological security derived from a taken-for-granted sense of attachment; it is also rooted in the material and moral reality in which individuals seek to live their lives. Class experience is, therefore, an integral part of the story of national identity in twenty-first-century Britain.

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